Home TravelEurope An authentic stay at The Collective at Woolsery

An authentic stay at The Collective at Woolsery

by Mike Cranmer

More than a country pub

The Farmer’s Arms, by The Collective at Woolsery, North Devon, is a country pub, but “…not as we know it Jim” to paraphrase Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Yes, it’s a pub; and yes, it’s in the country, but it’s more, much, much more.

Crossroads Hotel

For starters, it’s a Grade II-listed 350-year-old coaching inn and blacksmith’s that was about to be turned into flats in 2015. Back then Woolsery was one of those forgotten crossroads rural villages with a church, struggling shop, a chippy, struggling Post Office, a tumble-down Georgian manor hotel and the pub, a handful of miles from Bideford, the nearest town. The heart of the village was in near-terminal decline like so many others of the same kind. 

the collective

‘Hello’ Bebo

Enter one Michael Birch who spent his boyhood summers there at his grandmother’s shop, built by his great great grandfather. Michael, with his wife Xochi, founded Bebo, an early social media platform in 2005 which reached 80 million users in 2008. They sold to AOL for $850 million. Not bad for three years’ work. Shocked by the news of the imminent demise of so many of his beloved childhood memories the couple stepped in.

the collective

“We had no grand vision,” said Michael. “We bought The Farmers Arms and it snowballed from there. We then acquired the Fish & Chip shop, some cottages and the village shop, but the major turning point was buying the manor house, Wulfheard Manor, which we’re turning into a unique luxury hotel and restaurant experience unlike any other in the UK. Manor house hotels are usually a couple of miles from their nearest village – very disconnected from village life,” Michael explained. “But Wulfheard is in the middle of the village, so we can create the exact opposite of what you’d usually find.

The Collective is born

All this became The Collective at Woolsery, but Wulfhead is a year or so down the line so it was The Old Smithy that became home for the night. It’s entered from the pub garden – mind your head on the doorway beam – via a private courtyard and outdoor eating space into a modern open-plan living area with a state-of-the-art kitchen, wood burning stove and underfloor heating, perfect for curling up for a cosy evening in front of the fire.

Bedroom at The Old Smithy

Descend artisan blacksmith stairs to the upside-down house’s spacious bedroom on the ground floor, which features a private bathroom with a walk-in rain shower, wood burner and a free-standing tub. With both wood burners fired up and ticking over for later, it was time to head to the pub.

Design to the rescue

Michael and Xochi Birch, worked with conservation and historic building architectural firm Jonathan Rhind and New Heritage Design, who have brought out the best of the original 17th-century building – low beams, stone floors, intimate nooks, low lighting – while adding a light-filled dining extension. Quirky touches like the huge stuffed head of a bull keeping his beady eye on diners, and the food served on beautiful pewter plates hark back to coaching days.

A date in the bar

Pre-dinner drinks are one of the great pleasures of life; pondering what to have while sitting on a bar stool, and chatting to the bar staff and regulars who are the true indicator of a pub’s health. They mean decent prices and good conversation. While our drinks were being prepped we were offered fresh Saudi Barhi dates – yellow and crunchy, tasting of caramel and brown sugar – brought back by one of the locals in the bar. Cheers! 

Bar and Dining area The Farmers Arms

Produce on the doorstep

To dinner. Executive Chef Ian Webber’s menu, he declares, “…all starts at the farm.”. He’s referring to Birch Farm, The Collective’s 150-acre farm which provides almost all the meat, fruits, vegetables and herbs he uses. To devise his creative yet rooted-in-the-soil menus, Ian works closely with Head Gardener Josh Sparkes and Livestock Manager Chris Jenn, eating with the seasons: everything reared and grown on the land in harmony with nature.

My fishy dishes came from nearby Appledore; Monkfish and Scallop Fishcake – buttered leeks, poached Birch Farm egg, chips; then Fowey Mussels, from across the border in Cornwall – Honeywood Haze cider, tarragon, cream. The mussels were fat and sweet: little bursts of the ocean. Back at the wood burners – still glowing – for an early night in the oh-so-comfy bed and the incomparable peace of deepest North Devon.

Passionate Pioneer

A knock on The Old Smithy door signalled the arrival of breakfast in wicker baskets. Fresh rhubarb juice, two eggs poached to utter perfection, hash browns, all products of Birch Farm just 10 minutes across the way. Head Gardener Josh Sparkes showed us around. He is the driving force, brimming with ideas, employing a mix of Japanese composting, permaculture and biodynamic techniques alongside traditional ways of growing heritage plants. The farm’s 150 acres include a huge vegetable garden, flower garden, orchard, syrup grove and gigantic greenhouses with good soil management at the heart of it all.

Breakfast The Old Smithy

We’re also growing an edible forest of over 300 plants – many of them rare species – from which fruit, nuts and herbs will be foraged (and sap tapped) for the kitchens,” he said. “In the orchard, a collection of hardwood, nut and softwood trees have been planted to enable them to support each other in a mutually beneficial way.” This passionate pioneer is developing a system to recycle uneaten food from the pub to fertilise the soil. “I’m not aware of anyone else using a Bokashi system in the UK and, if we can make it work, we’ll have an entire closed system – from growing to eating to recycling the food waste back into the ground.”

The Collective at Woolsery is breaking new ground in eating, drinking, and hospitality; employing locals, bringing unloved and unused historic buildings back to life, eschewing commercialization and going back to the soil and a way of life fast disappearing. Forget London-on-the-Cotswolds. And all due to Social Media.

Why visit The Collective at Woolsery?

  • Beautiful accommodation, stunning location
  • Food grown and prepared with passion
  • Young enthusiastic staff
  • Groundbreaking scheme
  • A taste of proper country living
  • Get well away from it all

The Collective at Woolsery
Near Bideford
North Devon
EX39 5QS
United Kingdom

Author

  • Mike Cranmer

    Michael is passionate about many things: skiing, music (anything that moves him, but especially the blues, Stax, Motown, and gospel), Dirty Dry Vodka Martinis, good pals, and living ‘in the moment’. One-time international photographer turned Picture Editor, he eventually saw the light and became a ski-instructor and travel writer. His stories are “about the extraordinary people I meet along the way”.

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